Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

May Summary

May was quite a busy and happy month culturally speaking, and thus marked a return to blogging. I attended two crime fiction festivals and wrote copiously about them. I saw one art exhibition, one film in cinemas and one play. And I read lots of books.

The exhibition was the Spanish crowd-pleasing artist Sorolla, who seemed to enjoy a charmed life back in the early 1900s: his paintings were selling well, he was commissioned to do interesting work, he was married to the love of his life who modelled for him regularly, he had three children he adored. No tortured artist’s existence for him. He also had a remarkable facility for painting in different styles (from social realism to impressionism to Velasquez like portraits). In my youth I might have been a little sniffy and dismissive of such an obviously bourgeois painter, but I actually enjoyed his work a lot. Nothing wrong with being ‘pretty’. His use of colour (especially the different nuances of white) and light is spectacular.

From the programme for Sorolla at the National Gallery.

The play I saw was part of the RADA showcases as their third-year acting students finish their degree. I saw Love and Money, written by Dennis Kelly in 2006 but very prescient about the financial crisis of 2008 and bad debts. It was, like all the best plays are, both funny and rather dark, the story of a marriage floundering in a sea of trying to keep up with the Joneses and getting out of consumer debt. All of the performers were good, but Stacy Abalogun and Bea Svistunenko stood out for me. It was the second time I’d seen Bea after her riveting performance in Linda: we are going to hear great things about her, mark my words.

Now that I no longer have books to review regularly, I am reading with more of a theme. In May the theme was the Paris Commune, because it was in May that it came to a very bloody end in 1871. I was wise enough to read two historical accounts about the Commune back in April, because the novel by Emile Zola The Debacle ended up taking most of the month. Not just because it was long (and in French, which always means slightly slower reading for me), but because it was also emotionally quite a challenge to read. I’ve written two blog posts about it, here and here.

Sadly, this meant that I didn’t manage to read another book in French about the Commune, Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, but I think I will persevere with it over the summer, as I continue to be fascinated with this period in French history. I’ve managed to talk Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings into buying an English translation of this book, so we might engage in a joint read during the holidays.

I took a break from this very serious topic with a lot of crime fiction and one true crime, The Five, the very moving accounts of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper. Not perhaps the most obvious choices for ‘lighter’ subject matter, but a change of pace from Zola anyway. But what could I do? I turned to Martin Suter’s Elefant for a nice cosy read and instead it featured homeless people and ruthless experimentation on animals. But yes, also an adorable pint-sized, pink glow-in-the-dark baby elephant.

So I felt entirely justified in picking up Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, because no matter how serious and shocking the subject matter is, Moss also manages to be witty about it. Her description of teenage grumpiness and rebellious undercurrent are spot on. Of course, this is a dig at those who are overly nostalgic about the past, as well as a study in how easy it is to get caught up in mass hysteria.

Finally, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal is beautifully evocative of 1950s Vienna, with the different occupied forces still very much present in the city. Although it has a bit of a rushed and violent ending, it is also a superb meditation on whether it is ever possible to return and reintegrate after you’ve been exiled from the place you once considered home. Is it possible to forgive and forget?

14 books read, 6 by women, 8 by men. Only two books in foreign languages this month (probably because it took me so long to read one of them).

Plans for the upcoming months?

A Twitter exchange with Barcodezebra about Brazilian fiction led to an impromptu spending spree (so much for my book buying ban, but I am trying to contain it all in the merry month of May and then go back to austerity). It’s been a long time since my last obsession with Brazilian literature, back when I was doing my Ph.D. right next to (or above) the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. I would saunter in and explore all the writers I’d never heard of before: Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many more. So I thought it was high time I caught up with some of their more contemporary authors and ordered a whole bunch from Abe Books. I will certainly read some during the Women in Translation Month in August (Patricia Melo, Socorro Acioli and Clarice Lispector’s short stories), but I’m tempted to soak up some Latin American atmosphere before then. However, I also plan to keep going with my #EU27Project. I am very close to finishing it!

I also intend to read a lot more poetry over the summer, as I try to regain my poetry writing groove. This will be mostly random rummaging through my rather hefty poetry bookshelves, just seeing what appeals to me in the moment, although I may have ordered Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic online, as I couldn’t wait anymore for it to come out in the UK. There is as much buzz around it as there was around Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few years ago, so I hope I will love it as much as I loved that one. (Poetry book buzz seems to be more reliable than bestseller book buzz.)

Hmmm, sounds like quite a lot of plans. Have I bitten off more than I can chew, as usual?

The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune

Advertisement for the new novel by Zola.

So I finally finished Zola’s The Debacle and, while it was a fascinating, at times gruesome depiction of the Franco-Prussian War, it lacked substance when it came to the presentation of the Paris Commune. While it’s not fair to criticise the book for something that it’s not, I had picked it up in the expectation it might give me some new insight into the Commune, however brief its treatment of it.

Sadly, it does not.

The reason for that is probably because Zola himself (and his contemporaries) were not entirely sure what to make of the Commune. It had been brutally vanquished by the government, after all. There was no attempt at reconciliation, forgiveness or negotiation. Thousands were killed, many more sent into exile in a penitentiary colony. Its most visible supporters (like the painter Courbet) were imprisoned and then had to flee France to avoid having to pay off horrendous debts to the state for the destruction of property.

Those months of self-governance were presented in the newspapers and popular culture of the time as destructive, indiscriminate, incoherent, rudderless. Now, Zola is not one to shy away from controversy (remember the Dreyfus Affair?), but he was clearly influenced by the flood of published literature in the 1870s condemning the whole movement. While similar, on the whole, to the critical stance of most of his liberal republican contemporaries (disenchanted with the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War and attributing the outbreak of the rebellion to the poor handling of that), Zola’s views on the uprising were slightly more compassionate than most, calling on the National Assembly to listen to the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Commune. Following the suppression of the rebellion, however, Zola is conspicuously silent about the government-sanctioned blood-bath. Perhaps he felt that the French were a little too prone to be swept away by revolutionary fervour, without thinking about the consequences.

Caricature of Zola, suggesting he uses the most disgusting things to ‘cook up’ something.

His ambivalence about the Commune has been noted by historians: he wrote some negative chronicles in the newspapers of the time, and there is one letter dated 22nd May, 1871, addressed to the newspaper La Semaphore in Marseille, in which he makes fun of the Communard desire to recognise all children born out of wedlock and to do away with titles of nobility:

The farce is now over and the clowns will be arrested. Rochefort is already in chains and surely the others will follow shortly. The cannon is booming, these are the last horrors and last remnants of the civil war.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Debacle, Maurice, the idealist who had been so keen to fight against the Prussians at the start of the novel, is the one who is indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals, while practical, down-to-earth Jean remains in the army. Of course, Jean is horrified by the disproportionate revenge he sees the army exacting upon the Communards and, in a fine piece of melodrama (spoilers ahead), he is the one who pierces Maurice with a bayonet before realising just whom he is killing. Maurice is ravaged by fever and keeps repeating that Paris is burning, that the only way to purify the city is by having it burn to the ground. But the purification does not come from the rebels themselves. What Maurice says in his delirium (but which probably reflects the author’s views) is:

This is the sane and reasonable part of France, the measured, sensible peasant part of France, which has stayed closer to the land, defeating the mad, exasperated side, spoilt by the Empire, irredeemably broken by dreams and pleasures. It had to be done: cutting into the very flesh… The bloodbath was necessary, the loss of French blood, this abominable holocaust, this living sacrifice, to be purified by fire.

The wall at Pere Lachaise cemetary where at least 150 were shot in the last couple of days in May 1871 (an estimated total of 20,000 men, women and children died during the Bloody Week – or Fortnight – in May).

This is repeated in the final chapter of the book, Zola’s belief that the birth of a new nation and an improved form of republic can come out of all that suffering. The novel ends on a tiny note of hope, with Jean and Henriette looking forward to the reconstruction of the city and, indeed, all of France ‘… like a tree bringing forth a new, powerful shoot, after cutting off the putrid branch whose poisoned sap had turned the leaves yellow.’

The Siege of Paris and the Commune are despatched hurriedly in a few short chapters (comprising only about the last 10% of the book) and is perhaps less interesting (and more ambivalent) than what we encounter on our journey there. The chapters following the fall of Sedan, when Jean and Maurice are made prisoners of war by the Prussians, are particularly grim. The appalling conditions in the prison camps, the dead bodies (of both men and horses) floating in the Meuse river, the desperate attempts to slaughter and eat horses are images that were almost unbearable to read and will stay with me forever. Not a trace of sugarcoating from Zola, pure condemnation of violence and war at its nastiest and messiest.

Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some lighter moments, almost comic relief with the self-centred and vain Gilberte, wife of the local merchant and Henriette’s friend. But this is a far cry from the comedy of manners or social critique that Zola incorporated in his other novels (and in his literary ideal of realism). This is almost photographic realism, forcing the reader to look at the terrible consequences of nationalism, pride, revenge and the futile hunt for glory.

I am glad that I read this novel, it is certainly unforgettable, but I do wish I had spent more time on the Vautrin book for a fuller (and more sympathetic) Commune experience.

In Our Mad and Furious City

This debut novel by Guy Gunaratne doesn’t really need much by way of introduction. It has won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The author is a film-maker, covering post-conflict areas around the world, and this sensibility serves him well in presenting London as a place of multicultural influences and friendships, yes, but also simmering resentments, occasionally exploding into full aggression and rioting.

Yoos, Selvon and Ardan are three lads growing up on or around a council estate in Neasden, North London. They all have ‘elsewhere’ in their blood (i.e. their parents were immigrants) and they are mates: they bus together to school, they are in the same year, they play football on the estate. A loose, unspoken friendship binds them, but is it enough to make up for their differences? Selvon is training hard and listening to motivational podcasts, keen to get a sports scholarship and make his way out of the place. Ardan’s way out is through his music, he writes lyrics and dreams of success as a grime artist. Yoos (Yusuf) is Muslim and doesn’t much like the wave of radicalism engulfing his brother and the mosque where his father used to be the Imam.

In a normal world, they could remain friends, a proud showcase for diversity and integration. But this is London one hot summer when a black boy struck down an off-duty soldier with a cleaver, shouting something about what happens to infidels. So races and religions are pitted against each other, and London’s ‘scowling youth’ are at the end of their tether, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. There is no possibility of leading a normal life, of not taking sides. Over the course of just two days, we move from the gritty everyday to tragedy to comedy and back to tragedy again, all conveyed in a language that closely follows oral traditions, belonging to several generations and cultural backgrounds. It is both deeply depressing and ultimately uplifting. It is impossible to read this book without feeling somehow changed. It reminded me, both in terms of subject matter, and the friendship of the main characters, of the cult film La Haine.

Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé in La Haine.

Alongside the three boys and two additional older characters whose relationship to them is initially somewhat unclear, there is a sixth character, perhaps even THE main character in the book: the city itself. The description of London in all its confused, noisy, vast, pluralistic muddle made me think instantly of Paris at the time of the Commune, and not just because I was reading the two books at nearly the same time.

Neither of the two cities prove to be a haven; idealism and hopes for a better life are doomed, whether it’s the dreams of immigrants or those trying to build a new utopian social order.

I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries… Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.

One of the enduring images of the London riots of 2011, from The Guardian.

Compare that to the description of Paris of the years 1869-1874 by Rupert Christiansen in Paris Babylon:

… a noisy multifariousness and confusion, and a hostile resilience to all attempts to placate or silence them. Like every city, it argued with itself, constantly pulling in a thousand different directions, growing like a virus, in an unreasonable organic fashion. The reality of Paris is its people’s voices and stories, motivated by the pressure of immediate daily experience and the ceaseless flow of misinformation we call ‘news’; it cannot be reduced to a thesis, an image or a generalization.

It’s these ‘other voices’, often forgotten voices but nevertheless an organic part of the city, that finally take centre stage in the novel. Although the three young men have the most seductive voices, it is old and frail Nelson who has some of the best lines about the high price the city demands of its inhabitants.

This grey, miserable place what hold the young in like a pig pen… Lord, I wish I could tell my son what I know. All that I know about how the city raise a young man’s fury. How it bend him back, beat him down with so much hard rain he want shelter with whoever will carry him.

In Christiansen’s view, the Commune too was not so much a calculated political strategy and rebellion, but a furious instinctive response to the destruction of a way of life to give room to the modernisations of Haussmann and the humiliation of the Prussian siege. It ‘simply had to happen… for reasons beyond reason.’

The Commune from an archive picture, from L’Humanite. The Emperor and Baron Haussmann had been very keen to get rid of the cobblestoned streets, to avoid the cobblestones being used for barricades. As you can see, they didn’t quite succeed in getting rid of all of them, certainly not in Belleville and Montmartre.

I found reading the two books in parallel to be an enlightening experience. And both of them, in a way, end with a declaration of love to the great cities which somehow remain elusive, annoying, impossible to capture in their full complexity. The cities and their infuriating, maddening, heroic people.

So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feelings its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The lights lies in the armoured few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible.